As I listen to the Metropolitan Opera premiere the last of the four operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle –streamed for free to an eager audience worldwide—I have to say, the natives are restless. While Canadians are just fine with Robert Lepage (those who care, at least), the verdict so far in NYC seems quite conflicted. I am basing this on the reviews I’ve seen, before having checked anything written about the new production I am listening to tonight (I am posting this while Act III is still on so i should think the reviews would at least wait for the end of the piece?).
But there seems to be a lot riding on this. I suppose money is part of it. I want to take a moment just to remember the things i liked, because when i read what some say, you’d think it was a mess, a disaster. Lepage even went as far as issuing an interview that sounded like an attempt at a defense; and under the circumstances i can’t blame him. There’s been a great deal of magic for me in each of the previous three operas, yet all I’ve heard were a series of negatives.
Das Rheingold? We heard about the rainbow bridge failure on the opening night, the relatively under-powered Wotan & Loge.
Have people forgotten the magical parts?
- For starters wow, the appearance of the Rhine Maidens, doing that trademark thing Lepage seems to love, namely hanging on strings. It was stunning.
And the descent to Niebelheim is surely something nobody can take away from Lepage. Has anyone ever ever ever done so much with that sequence? Yes I’ve seen marvellous moments in productions, but never the overtones of elfin magic, visual echoes of styles we see in Lord of the Rings (although to be fair, the debt is really the other way, correct? Even if Tolkien still refuses to admit any debt or influence).
- Loge walking backwards up the wall… fire and the lie, captured in a wonderful image, and sung beautifully.
- Wendy Bryn Harmer… at the risk of sounding crude, shouldn’t Freia, the goddess who embodies youth and fertility be beautiful? This time at least, the casting is brilliant. When the giants want her, can you blame them? The camera loves her.
- When Loge sings that lovely arioso about his quest for someone willing to sacrifice woman’s wonder & worth (“Weibes Wonne und Wert”), and leans across Harmer, his hands glowing magically, I couldn’t see for the tears. In the encore it was every bit as powerful even though I knew it was coming.
- The relationships between the principals makes so much sense in Lepage’s reading. One of my favourite moments in the Chereau Ring is that lovely climax when Wotan tells the giants to take the gold, and declares Freia free. She runs away from the giants… and runs PAST her waiting family, to stand alone, distraught, as she ponders her family relationships. Lepage takes it a step beyond that. Farmer seems to respond to Fasolt’s rough love. Her glances at him are so sweet, so sad when we see what happens to Fasolt, and problematic to be sure.
- Love that pursuit through the forest, Siegmund entering to…
- A twin sister who really looks like a twin! Casting again!
- I said little about Bryn Terfel’s Wotan –whose portrayal I liked in Rheingold—but Terfel upped the ante substantially in this opera, particularly his long monologue in the second act. I loved that peculiar “eye” that carries so many possible meanings. Wotan has given up an eye in exchange for wisdom, so it makes a curious kind of sense for the eye to be a motif at this point, as Wotan explores the world, in effect using that eye.
- I loved the Ride of the Valkyries. I have never liked this strange set-piece, the single most over-played piece of Wagner, that turns up in movies & TV commercials, a piece that has probably never worked very well onstage. I’ve seen several productions of this opera and have never been very happy with what the director comes up with, especially when the sisters are all suddenly dwarfed by the arrival of the much bigger woman playing Brunnhilde. Please don’t mistake me for a size-ist, as I love big bodies, and grew up watching them onstage. But what a difference when Brunnhilde is the same size as her sisters, and suddenly she genuinely seems to be one of a troop. And wow that sets up the father-daughter relationship with a Wotan who truly is a godlike figure, namely Bryn Terfel. Terfel’s reading of Wotan’s farewell at the end of the opera was truly special, beautiful, moving, and in a close-up.
Siegfried? Here we meet the other main character of the ring, the title character, played by Jay Hunter Morris, and both physically and vocally we’ve got someone who’s up to the task. And what about Lepage’s contribution?
- The physical reality in this opera brings the technology of Lepage’s design a step further, a curious hybrid of projections, props, puppets, live action, tromp l’oeil… We are in something artificial, a presentational space that’s believable but not fully real either. It means that the nature music, the dragon, the forest-bird, will all have a different kind of impact than what we’ve seen in other productions. It’s not pretending to be symbolic or archetypal; if anything it’s surprisingly real, very simple.
- There are again several moments illuminated at the simplest level of text. For example, I’ve never seen the segment where Siegfried tries to talk to the forest bird with his own inept flute playing made quite so enjoyable, simply by giving us the comedy that’s in the text. Similarly we actually see Wotan’s ravens chase the forest bird away as indicated in the text.
A lot has been said about Lepage’s “machine”, a large computer-controlled device manipulating a series of rectangular shapes that resemble planks. There’s been a great deal of resistance, complaints, objections. Yes there was a malfunction causing a delay of the Walküre high definition broadcast. Of course, another negative complaint to fasten on. But has anyone really wrapped their head around this achievement? It’s something new, and I can’t quite grasp what it means. Projections change the reality of the playing area, and have been doing so for decades already. This is something else again. The chief components of that machine are reframed over and over again, in slightly different configurations. The machine is like a mannequin, a colossal Barbie doll, except that it doesn’t wear clothes, it wears people in costumes. This world is Protean & malleable. Any administrator knows that the one constant in the world is change; Lepage gets it too, and makes change something fundamental to his Ring. That is the message of the machine, that everything changes. Erda told us something just like that, in the last scene of Das Rheingold:
Alles was ist, endet. (Everything that is, ends)
Lepage makes change a fundamental condition of his Ring. For those who are bemoaning that there’s nothing profound in this Ring, perhaps they should have another look.
(I am listening to Act III of Götterdämmerung, my favourite act of the cycle… the audience giggled audibly when the Rhine Maidens came out of the water… Did the nymphs make the audience laugh, or Siegfried with his facial expression? I guess I’ll see next week).
And yes, there’s the small matter of the musical performance of Götterdämmerung.
As I said on Facebook “I love Luisi”, and hopefully I don’t need (to use Ricky Riccardo’s charming accent) to “splain” anything. The pace he takes –faster than James Levine, faster than the pace to which most people are accustomed—is truly breath-taking. It actually makes the singing easier for the key performers, even if they sometimes resemble patter singers. The entire work hangs together better when the lines aren’t drawn out endlessly in the usual way German conductors have been doing for the last half century or more.
Morris and Voigt sound wonderful, as does Hans-Peter König, possibly the best singer in the entire cycle.
Okay… I am now going to listen to the end of the world. And then I’ll watch it again next Saturday.